The Bottom of a Bottomless Barrel: Introducing Akahon Manga

Izumi Mikio, "The Battle of Pest Island" (Osaka: Osaka Mangasha, c. 1950)

If the medium is the message, or rather if the means of production are the message, then akahon certainly provided a poor moral example. That is, if children happened to notice that some of the artists were thieves. Like I mentioned in the beginning, piracy and unauthorized copying were fairly common in the akahon market. Once again, the Shitgrin Mask outdid the competition. Not only did they print garbage, but also unoriginal garbage. The only reason I know this is because by sheer accident I happen to own the “original” of one of their books. The scare quotes you will quickly comprehend.

The “original” in question is Izumi Mikio’s The Battle of Pest Island, a better than middle-of-the-road akahon. I don’t know anything about this artist. There is an illustrated story of the life of Audrey Hepburn from 1954 by an artist of the same name in the collection of the International Children’s Library in Tokyo. Though not first class, this Izumi could draw, apparently well enough to have a real name and survive the end of the akahon market.

The “pests” in question are mice. A family’s house has been infested. Mother complains that in addition to chewing holes in the wall, they have eaten the carrot she had to wait all day in food ration lines to get – a nice touch of daily life in immediate postwar Japan. The family cat is not doing its job. Out with the cat! His name is Cocktail.

Now homeless, Cocktail teams up with his friends, Beer and Brandy. They are visited by a bearded white man. “I am neither Thunder nor Santa Claus,” he proclaims. “I am the protector of all felines, the Great God Meow Purr.” In Japanese, that’s “Nyangoro Daimyōjin,” making him sound like a Buddhist or Shinto deity. He explains to Cocktail, Beer, and Brandy that the reason there are always mice no matter how many they catch is that every month tens and hundreds of thousands come over by ship from a place called Pest Island. If the mouse problem is to be solved, one must go to the source. Abracadabra Purr Purr Purr. Cocktail, Beer, and Brandy are transformed into the Three Meowsketeers. It is their mission to go to Pest Island and kill all the mice.

First, they track down the ship. They sneak on at night, beat the rodent crew with bats and their fists. Foreseeing the end, one mouse decides to hack a hole in the hull, to sink the cats along with the ship. The Meowsketeers escape, as does one of the mice. He swims to shore and runs for help, stopping a mouse on the roadway and tells him of the attack.

Any reader familiar in the least with comics will have long ago noticed that we have arrived in the realm of fuzziness regarding intellectual property. Cocktail is clearly a copy of Felix. And I imagine other characters also come from American comics and animation, perhaps also parts of the story and some of the jokes. One can also see the influence Tezuka had on his contemporaries. The legendary impact of New Treasure Island on the period’s artists and young readers is no myth. There are at least a few pages in Pest Island that are directly modeled on Tezuka and Sakai’s book, like the below driving sequence, a modified version of the famous opening scene of New Treasure Island.

The Meowsketeers’ attack on Pest Island is relentless. But the mice put up a good fight. Beer has obtained some ratsbane. The mice decide to turn the tables. While Beer is sprinkling the poison on a fish set on the ground, they switch on the fan. The ratsbane flies in his face and knocks him out. The mice tie him up and take him captive.

Then Brandy comes along. He sees the fish on the ground. Delighted, he sits down to lunch not knowing it’s been laced. Stomach pains knock him out of the battle. Cocktail proves more resilient. He escapes strangulation by rope from a mouse in a tree before accidentally finding the secret underground laboratory where the pests manufacture their germs. Pestroch, the head of the lab, almost plunges a hypodermic full of the stuff into Cocktail’s belly, but the cat grabs the doctor and slams him to the floor. He then sets a bomb to the facility. But the plan is foiled by a gang of armed mice.

The storm of bullets however pierces the lab’s gas tanks. The whole thing goes SHOO SHOO BABAAN! The story winds to a close with the Meowsketeers subduing the rodent kingdom’s leader, caught unawares while discussing with one of his ministers whether to hang or boil the captive Beer. Head Mouse tries to escape by plane, but is literally “blown” out of the air and to his death by a giant fan. Hurrah. The Meowsketeers have succeeded in carrying out the Great God Meow Purr’s mission. But, young readers, you are probably wondering why then are there still so many mice around. Perhaps somewhere there is another Pest Island??? So asks a farewell note. The End.